After a two-year hiatus due to COVID, the opportunity to visit congregants at Jewish sleep-away camps is back in my summer plans. I am excited to have this opportunity return and see our children in such a wonderful, informal educational setting.
When I visit, I often think of the first annual foray into a “new” camp with the 12 spies we encounter in this week’s Torah portion.
Parashat Sh’lach L’kha provides two diametrically different reports from the spies who were sent to “scout” the Land of Israel. They bring back ripe fruits and 10 of the 12 report that the “land flows with milk and honey, but it is a land of giants. We felt like grasshoppers in their sight.”
Joshua and Caleb contradict the other scouts, urging the people to go up and conquer the land. The people insist Moses let them go back to Egypt. Angered by the report of the spies and the people’s reaction, God punishes them with 40 years of wandering in the desert. They are told that the generation liberated from Egypt will not enter the Land of Israel. Only their children, led by Joshua and Caleb, will victoriously enter; the people who had suffered years of Egyptian slavery are condemned to die in the desert.
What did the spies either say or do to bring on such severe punishment? There are a variety of views.
Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, a 16th-century Italian scholar, suggests that when they mention giants, they mean to suggest that the climate of the land is so polluted that only the strongest among them will survive. When they claim that they felt like grasshoppers, the spies are deliberately exaggerating the physical size of their potential enemies.
Modern commentator Rabbi Pinchas Peli says that by observing that it is a land that eats up its people, the spies are conducting a demoralization campaign deliberately deceiving the people.
Psychologist Erich Fromm observes that the affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth and freedom is rooted in one’s capacity to love. We love productively only when we learn to love ourselves. We can only conquer “promised lands” when we have regard for our talents and believe in our creative powers.
The sin of the spies grows from their failure of self-love and self-respect. Perhaps that explains their punishment. Only Joshua and Caleb, who refuse to see themselves as “grasshoppers,” are worthy of entering the Promised Land.
We are all going on different journeys. Whether it is our younger members going on different journeys at camp this summer or each of us navigating the uncertainty of life, we can all find a positive silver lining and enter into our own personal promised land.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.